Barrel of Britain: Ageing beer in wood

Adrian Tierney-Jones

Adrian Tierney-Jones

22 April 2020

There was a time when wooden containers were just a brewing necessity. Now, barrel ageing is about awakening flavours and experimentation, says Adrian Tierney-Jones

The place is Goose Island’s brewpub in Shoreditch. The date is Friday, 29 November; the time 8.30am. The doors are about to open as a queue of 40 beer lovers wait patiently to get hold of 2019’s vintage of Bourbon County Stout, a 15.2% abv monster aged in Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey whiskey barrels.

The annual release of this potent potation (first brewed in 1992) both here and in the USA, is a sign of how far barrel-aged beer has burrowed itself into the craft beer mainstream.
Visit any modern brewery with aspirations of greatness and you will see a collection of wooden barrels gathered like benevolent Daleks in a corner or in an adjoining room. Many once held whisk(e)y or bourbon, while others have been home to red or white wine, cider, port, rum, tequila and gin. For a brewery serious about beer and curious about how far flavour can be taken, barrel-ageing is an essential part of its craft.

What is barrel ageing?

Simply, barrel-ageing is about beer taking a long sleep, being tucked up in a wooden womb as time fl oats by like lilies on a stream. It is about opening up a new direction for beer’s flavour and aroma, thanks to the different kinds of wooden barrels used as well as the liquids that once filled them. Then when the brewer is ready, the beer gets a rude awakening, and is filled with a new sense of vigour, ready to start on its own journey or happy to merge with another beer or be taken to another barrel.

Barrel-ageing is all about forward thinking breweries’ willingness to experiment, learn and refine

A new chapter begins, an awakening of flavours – this is barrel ageing. It’s all about forward-thinking breweries’ willingness to experiment, learn and refine.

Barrel-ageing has a long history. During the great porter days of the 18th and 19th centuries, beer was aged in barrels, sometimes for up to a year or more. It ripened and was then renewed by its time in vats, some the size of modest hotels in seaside towns. Then, as the new century dawned and world wars churned their weary way, brewers forgot what they used to do. Until the last few years that is.

A new dawn

Innis & Gunn Original was one of the first British beers to bring the idea of barrel-ageing to a wider beer-loving public, when it was launched by brewer Dougal Sharp in 2003 (though more recently the company found itself under fire for its barrel into beer method, which involves staves of rum and bourbon casks being added to some of its beers). At the time, he was experimenting with various beers in different wooden containers, as part of a project with a distiller keen to make an ale-flavoured whisky.

‘Once we discovered the beer we liked,’ he recalls, ‘we spent 12 months working on the packaging and the brand name. I wanted to talk about craftsmanship and the flavours from the wood and we wanted it to be sipped and savoured. Barrel ageing has since become a passion for me,’ he continues. ‘A way of imparting a depth of flavour different from the traditional ways of brewing. Over the past 16 years we have been lucky to have gone on this exciting journey, using different woods and barrels. The thing about barrel ageing is that you never know what you are going to get. It adds mouthfeel and texture, a fifth dimension to the beer.’

As well as the smooth and vanilla-rich Original – which Sharp says works well in food-led bars as well as those that major in spirits – other regular Innis & Gunn beers include the fruity and spicy Blood Red Sky, plus limited editions such as the Vanishing Point 03 Imperial Stout, which actually spent 420 days being barrel-aged.

‘If you taste Original before and after barrel-ageing, the difference is the mouthfeel and that is what people like,’ says Sharp. ‘The creaminess fills your palate, it is almost like biting into a hot
buttered crumpet, which is then overlaid with notes like toffee, vanilla and citrus. The flavour of vanilla is one of the most preferred flavours in the world, with most successful aged dark spirits imparting it. It is the same with our beer – so many people who say that they are not a beer drinker at our tastings then say how much they love it.’

The thing with barrel-ageing is that you never know what you’re going to get. It adds a fifth dimension

Dougal Sharp

The same decade saw Thornbridge Brewery put St Petersburg Imperial Russian Stout into three different whisky barrels, while Fuller’s then head brewer John Keeling had to battle with the Customs & Exercise before he could progress with the Brewer’s Reserve series (fingers crossed the series continues under the new owners). Then other brewers such as Buxton, Kernel, Magic
Rock and BrewDog (which opened its own barrel-ageing facility Overworks back in 2018) took up the cause.

Get the bretts in

One of the most active in the field is Wild Beer Co, set up in rural Somerset in 2012. From the very start, the brewery’s intention was to use barrel ageing as a major part of its approach. Modus Operandi was its debut beer, an old ale aged in oak barrels for 90 days alongside Brettanomyces yeast strains. The result was an incredibly complex beer with chocolate, cherry, vanilla and herbal notes.

James Bardgett is the brewery’s master blender and he explains the process behind Modus Operandi: ‘We brew into a foudre [large wooden vat common in wine] for initial ageing before transferring into a steel tank to remove the dead yeast. After this, the beer is racked into a variety of red wine, bourbon and sour culture barrels, with some beer also being returned back
into the foudre. The beer is then brought back together once aged and it’s blended into life!

‘Barrel-ageing can bring totally different dimensions to flavour and extra levels of depth to beers,’ Bardgett continues. ‘The drinks that we produce pay homage to classic beer styles whilst using modern techniques that put our twist on the way they are created. The beers are heavily influenced by wine and spirit makers in the way in which we produce vintages and use a huge variety of barrels. The culmination of this can blur the line [of] what people think a beer can be, and it is this variety that can make this style of beer so desirable.’

The result of Wild’s experimentation has included Yadokai, a bourbon barrel-aged version of their saké-inspired beer, and Beyond Modus VI, a special version of their annual winter blend. These are definitely beers to share (they are packaged in 75cl bottles) and ideal if your bar’s customers are expecting exceptional beers that are a little out of the ordinary.

Uncertain outcomes

‘Ageing is an art,’ says Bardgett. ‘We produce and combine these flavours together as if conducting an orchestra. We are not looking to age and blend our finest beers with each other but instead to make an ensemble, bringing together striking flavours, not necessarily working on their own but collectively creating harmony. The unpredictability of wood ageing is what makes it so exciting, often not knowing what you are going to get until the very end. It’s our obsession and something that we will always be learning and evolving into the future.’

Bardgett’s comments reveal the unpredictability of barrelageing. Brewers will readily admit that not every barrel-aged beer goes right, but those who are passionate about the process are happy to take that risk. ‘What we do is financial madness,’ says Burning Sky’s Mark Tranter, who oversees 200 barrels and four foudres at the brewery in the East Sussex village of Firle. ‘We have had to put some batches down the drain. You are never going to be a 100% happy, but I would like to be between 87% and 99%. You are custodians of the beer when it is in the barrel... One beer I did tasted fantastic, and then awful, and then it became wonderful.’

This is the joy of barrel-aged beer, whether it’s Innis & Gunn’s palate-friendly Original, or the more challenging sour-based (or Belgian-inspired if you like) creations coming from the likes of Wild Beer Co, Mills Brewing and Burning Sky. These beers speak of adventure, of mixing modernity and tradition, reminiscent of those small-batch artisanal spirits on which connoisseurs are so keen.

Finally, if you are the kind of bar that feels you can sell them, here are a few simple rules: first of all taste, taste, taste your chosen beers, then learn about the process and pass that information onto your staff and customers. Food and beer matchings are essential, but you also need to get the right mood for these beers. These are not for pints, they are contemplative and cool in their approach – above all, sippers to be savoured. Just ask those 40 or so people who queued in the November cold – just like Glenn Miller they were certainly in the mood.

FIVE OF THE BEST

INNIS & GUNN BLOOD RED SKY
This red ale spends time with I&G’s ‘barrel into beer’ method resulting in plenty of spice, vanilla and demerara sugar notes.
6.8% abv, £95/30l keg, Innis & Gunn

THORNBRIDGE BREWERY NECESSARY EVIL
Rich and potent imperial stout that has spent eight months in bourbon barrels.
13% abv, £96/12x375ml, Thornbridge

WILD BEER BEYOND MODUS VI
Dark and rich brown beer aged in both Burgundy red wine and bourbon barrels. Expect vinous notes, plenty of wood, dark fruit, cherry and a dry finish.
8% abv, £48/6x750ml; £140/20l, Beer Hawk

STIEGL SONNENKÖNIG IV BA DOUBLE IPA
Austrian-brewed DIPA that has rested several months in oak barrels which formerly held Muscatel wine – fine and elegant with a lasting bitterness.
10% abv, £109.30/6x750ml, Euroboozer

BURNING SKY CUVÉE
The Cuvée à la Provision is aged in a foudre and Chardonnay barriques before aged Belgian Lambic is blended in. Gorgeous.
6.5% abv, £45/6x750ml, Pig’s Ears

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